Friday, April 25, 2014

The road to mastery

There is a world of opportunity out there. A phrase that people (often already successful people) use all the time. A world of opportunity. What exactly does that mean? And how does an opportunity – a possibility – transform into an actual achievement?

Our journey as photographers is a never ending one. And opportunities or (little) achievements are everywhere, if you know where to look. Achievements that seem small at first. Maybe even things you would not think of as something you would be proud of. The more you progress as an artist, the bigger those strides you are taking, will seem to the outside world.

Let me explain.

Let's take the concept of 'constant learning' for example. Learning is a process and not an event. Let's get that straight. And more importantly, it is a never ending process. Learning also means enduring the uncertainty of not knowing.

The moment you start to learn something new, it naturally starts out as feeling awkward. You feel self-conscious. Clumsy. And that's totally OK! And then – as you continue – as you persist and keep trying and practicing, you will see, what started out as awkward, starts to transform into something more comfortable. Things will flow form uncertain, to certain. From untried to repetitive. From novel to familiar, perhaps maybe even comfortable or dare I say, masterful.

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work". Thomas Edison.

When you are doing the hard work, you'll see that you are encouraging yourself to go through change, as your creative abilities grow. That is the key! And you will grow even more when you let go of outdated views of the world (or even of yourself). By doing so you are encouraging yourself to seek out new possibilities and more new experiences. Experiences that will let you feel that novel feeling again. Experiences that again will migrate to feelings of familiarity, from awkward to routine, from uncertain to certain. It is really a never ending viscous circle.
If you take time to consider deeply how you have already accomplished things of importance in your photographic career, you will discover that you can easily remember the skills you've learned to get to where you are today. That IS an achievement you should be proud of! But beware, it is easy to overstate the importance of that, it is even easier to understate all that you are and all that you are becoming.

As a result we can actually state the following. As our awareness of this continuous process grows, and our acceptance grows that those awkward, self-conscious moments are simply a starting point – a stepping stone on the path to greater skill and an inevitable first step on the road to mastery – you will get stronger in the ability to set aside concern and stay focused on the next step towards comfort. Your confidence will build. Knowing that, makes it really easy to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. To get secure with the feeling of uncertainty and even insecurity.

You can in turn learn to manage those feelings (of uncertainty) and learn to set aside self doubt. All the while knowing that they are normal reactions to what is new or what seems challenging at first. The world of opportunity opens up to someone who is willing to let this inward change – from awkward to comfortable – to happen.

As you progress in your career, your ability to keep moving forward becomes stronger. And confidence in yourself keeps growing, as you discover that what used to be overwhelming, now seems pretty mundane. Just another part of your career to move through and handle with confidence.

The human mind functions best when it has a mid range amount of stimulation. If we get too much coming at us, too much information, too many demands, we get stressed. Being on overload. Then all we want to do is slow things down. Get away. Relax. But on the other hand, too little stimulation – if we get not enough going on to hold our interest or attention – we get bored. And boredom is a spur to go get some action. How important is it to take action and seek out enough novelty to keep your mind focused and sharp? It's different for every single one of us.

"Nothing endures but change." Heraclitus.

What you can feel good about, are the obvious big leaps in your own work. There is a moment of realization – of insight – (the aha-moment some people call it) when suddenly something becomes clear. It is not a moment you can force. It's not a moment you can produce at will. It is a moment you discover through self reflection. And in the end, those moments, as few and far between, will make big differences in your work, if you know when to react to them. For me for example it was the insight that colour photography was not for me (because I sucked at it) and that I had to go back to my B&W roots.

I wonder what some of your aha-moments were. I really don't know, but you do. You probably have seen such moments in ways that you would define as solid and strong turning points in your careers. They can empower you to do better work.

As artists we should continually develop a greater depth of understanding our surroundings and not necessarily a better understanding of technique. We should develop a deeper acceptance for the very human condition of complexity and simplicity, and what it means to define complex problems in simpler terms. Photography can be a great medium for that. Minimalism is a great example of that exact idea. Minimalist photographers are always walking that fine line of how deep is deep enough and how simple, is simple enough.

What you've discovered about your strengths and skills is essentially the foundation of what you are building on as you continue to grow as an artist. I often explain it as if our careers were a house of cards. In the beginning we have a very narrow foundation to work from. But as we grow, or house 'fans out' towards the top. At one point, our foundation becomes unstable because it is simply too small to carry all the weight of new knowledge. That's when you know you've reached a crossroad. I often see people clinging on to this state for years and never move forward, because they are afraid of change. I say, let your house of cards crash down, and when it does, look closely at your cards. What cards are important to you now? Place those in your new foundation and start building your new house of knowledge back up. It will fan out again. And it will – if you let it – crash down, yet again, and again, and again. Let that happen. Your foundation will become stronger and wider if you let it. This whole cycle is part of that same, never ending learning circle.

Remember that!